Big Ten: Adonis Smith

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 8, 2012
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A little basketball tournament just started in Indy. Who ya got?

Big Ten lunch links

February, 23, 2012
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She's like a dream, wrapped in a wish, poured into jeggings.
Adonis Smith's decision to transfer from Northwestern might not mean much come September.

But his exit adds to the questions surrounding a position that hasn't provided enough definitive answers in the past few seasons.

Smith appeared in 17 games the past two seasons, racking up 462 rush yards and three touchdowns. He might have evolved into the Wildcats' featured back, but he also might have been a career backup. It's tough to tell. Coach Pat Fitzgerald announced Smith's departure Wednesday.
[+] EnlargeAdonis Smith
Jerry Lai/US PRESSWIRERunning back Adonis Smith has decided to transfer from Northwestern.
"We're disappointed to see Adonis leave Northwestern," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "He is an outstanding young man and we wish him nothing but the best in his future endeavors."

Wildcats fans will forget about Smith if, say, Mike Trumpy returns from a torn ACL and surges as the starter. Or if true freshman Malin Jones emerges in preseason camp. Or if Treyvon Green builds on a freshman season in which he rushed for 362 yards and four touchdowns.

But if Northwestern can't identify a featured back and fails to generate a consistent rushing attack in 2012, Smith's name likely will be brought up.

While a struggling defense should be coach Pat Fitzgerald's top priority in the offseason, running back shouldn't be too far down his checklist. Northwestern's offense has made strides under Fitzgerald's watch, producing a steady stream of quarterbacks and wide receivers in recent years. But the running back position, once a program strong point, has declined.

Fitzgerald's predecessor at Northwestern, the late Randy Walker, left an indelible mark on the position he played in college. Walker had a 1,000-yard rusher in 25 of his 30 seasons in coaching, including each of his final four seasons as Northwestern's head coach (2002-05). Northwestern produced a 1,000-yard rusher in five of Walker's final six seasons.

But since Tyrell Sutton finished with exactly 1,000 yards in 2006, Fitzgerald's first season as Wildcats coach, Northwestern has failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher.

Here are the team's leading rushers the past five seasons:

  • 2007: Sutton, 451 yards
  • 2008: Sutton, 890 yards
  • 2009: Arby Fields, 302 yards
  • 2010: Trumpy, 530 yards
  • 2011: Kain Colter, 654 yards

Colter, by the way, plays quarterback for the Wildcats. Fields transferred following a disappointing 2010 season when he struggled to hang onto the ball or a favorable spot on the depth chart.

Why can't Northwestern produce featured backs anymore? An offense rooted in high-percentage passes and accurate quarterbacks has something to do with it. But the Wildcats have run the spread since 2000, and it didn't stop them from producing standout backs under Walker.

Northwestern has run the ball better as a team the past two seasons, rising from 95th nationally in rushing in 2009 to 58th in 2010 and 45th in 2011. But the team had a league-low 3.8 yards-per-carry average last fall.

Jones, the team's first commit in the 2012 recruiting class, could be the answer, much like Sutton was in 2005, when he captured Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. Perhaps Trumpy bounces back from injury or Green takes steps in his development. Maybe a committee system is the best approach.

If not, you might hear some grumbling about Adonis Smith in September.
The Big Ten postseason position rankings march on with the running backs. The running back rankings evaluate the entire position group, although superstar players affected the placement, too. Certain groups of running backs ran behind better offensive lines than others, and we took that into account when compiling the rankings.

Check out the preseason running back rankings here.

Onto the rundown ...

1. Wisconsin: Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball built on a strong finish to 2010 and took his game to another level in 2011. The Big Ten offensive player of the year headlined a Wisconsin rushing attack that led the Big Ten and ranked 11th nationally. While James White had a reduced role this past season, he still averaged 5.1 yards a carry and racked up 713 rush yards and six touchdowns. Ball also contributed in the passing game with 24 receptions, six of which went for touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeRex Burkhead
Jesse Johnson/US PresswireRunning back Rex Burkhead proved to be a workhorse for Nebraska this past season.
2. Nebraska: Rex Burkhead wore an "N" on his helmet, but it might as well have been an "S" on his chest. The player nicknamed "Superman" triggered a Nebraska rushing attack that ranked 15th nationally. Burkhead racked up 284 carries for 1,357 rush yards and 13 touchdowns. Although the Huskers didn't show a ton of depth at the position, young players like Ameer Abdullah have bright futures.

3. Ohio State: Although a quarterback (Braxton Miller) led the pass-averse Buckeyes in rushing, Ohio State had several capable ball carriers this past season. Carlos Hyde contributed early in the season and finished with 566 rush yards and six touchdowns on 106 carries. Dan Herron provided a spark after returning from suspension, averaging five yards a carry. Jordan Hall also tallied 100 carries and averaged more than four yards per rush.

4. Michigan: The coaches entered the season looking for a featured back and got one as Fitzgerald Toussaint emerged midway through the season. Toussaint racked up 120 yards or more in four of Michigan's final five regular-season games and displayed superstar potential at times. Although Toussaint and quarterback Denard Robinson had the bulk of the carries, reserves Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw both averaged more than six yards per carry.

5. Penn State: Much like Ohio State, Penn State relied heavily on its ground game to account for a shaky passing attack. Sophomore Silas Redd shouldered the burden, particularly during the month of October, when he led the FBS with 703 rush yards, including five 100-yard games. Redd finished with 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns, and Stephfon Green stepped up later in the season and had six rushing scores. Burly sophomore Curtis Dukes averaged 5.8 yards a carry.

6. Purdue: The Boilers had a featured back in Ralph Bolden but also had very good depth at the position. It showed up in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, which Bolden missed with a torn ACL. Akeem Shavers led the way and others contributed, too. Purdue finished the season with two 500-yard rushers in Bolden and Shavers, while freshman speedster Akeem Hunt averaged 8.7 yards on 33 carries.

7. Iowa: The Hawkeyes were a bit of a dichotomy in 2011, as they finished last in the Big Ten in rushing but had the league's top rusher for part of the season in Marcus Coker. Despite being suspended for the Insight Bowl, Coker finished second in the Big Ten in rushing yards (1,384) and 15th nationally in rushing average (115.3 ypg). He had 281 carries, while no other running back had more than 31, so it was a one-man show for Iowa in 2011.

8. Michigan State: The Spartans' rushing production went down in 2011, as Michigan State went from 64th nationally in rushing to 78th. MSU ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing for much of the season and finished 11th. But the team's struggles had more to do with a new-look offensive line than the running backs. Le'Veon Bell came on strong late in the season and rushed for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns. Edwin Baker's numbers went down, but he added 665 rush yards and five scores.

9. Illinois: Here's another team that had a quarterback (Nathan Scheelhaase) as its leading rusher, but Illinois also featured multiple options at running back. Although Jason Ford had an up-and-down season, Troy Pollard and Donovonn Young proved to be capable ball carriers. Young averaged 5.2 yards a carry and scored seven touchdowns, while Pollard averaged 7.2 yards a carry and had 488 rush yards and two scores.

10. Indiana: Although the Hoosiers have plenty of issues to address going forward, the running back spot appears solid. Stephen Houston started the final eight games and established himself as the featured back with 802 yards and eight touchdowns on 151 carries (5.3 ypc). Houston was productive in Big Ten play and a nice complement to quarterback Tre Roberson. D'Angelo Roberts and Matt Perez both added four touchdowns.

11. Northwestern: Echoing a common theme, Northwestern's top rusher was a quarterback (Kain Colter). While the offense has been productive the past few years, the Wildcats haven't found an elite featured back since Tyrell Sutton graduated. Jacob Schmidt was solid for stretches, and young backs Treyvon Green and Adonis Smith contributed at times. Mike Trumpy might still be the best of the bunch, but his season was cut short by a knee injury.

12. Minnesota: Although quarterback MarQueis Gray ran the ball well (966 rush yards, 6 TDs), Minnesota needs more from the running back spot going forward. Duane Bennett and Donnell Kirkwood both averaged less than four yards per carry, and the Gophers had only two 100-yard rushing performances from a running back.
Northwestern coaches and players don't sidestep the truth about the 2010 season.

When starting quarterback Dan Persa went down with a ruptured Achilles' tendon in mid November, the Wildcats were finished. They dropped their final three games, two in blowout fashion.

"From a team confidence standpoint," coach Pat Fitzgerald said, "obviously looking back in the rear-view mirror, we got rocked to the core."

Northwestern's offense has dealt with similar personnel fluctuation this season, but the impact hasn't been quite as severe.

Persa missed the first three games and has sat out portions of three others. Northwestern has had multiple quarterbacks attempt passes in eight of its nine games. Persa's health status has been a constant topic around the program, and the Wildcats have had to deal with their best player repeatedly going in and out of the lineup. The Wildcats also have dealt with injuries at the running back position.

But the constant shuffling hasn't slowed down the offense. The Wildcats rank second in the Big Ten in total offense (435.8 ypg) and fifth in scoring (31.2 ppg). They have eclipsed 400 yards of offense in all but two games and racked up 468 yards or more in three of the last four contests. In Big Ten play alone, Northwestern leads the league in passing (284.2 ypg) and ranks second in total offense (458.7 ypg).

Three of Northwestern's four wins have come in games that Persa either didn't play or didn't finish because of injury.

"We preach around here that the next guy's got to be ready to pick up the flag and get in there and do their job," running back Jacob Schmidt told ESPN.com "We have confidence in all of our quarterbacks regardless of who's out there at the time. … We're definitely more used to it this year and we've shown that by the number of points we've put up."

You could argue Northwestern's offense was too Persa-focused in 2010. Persa carried the unit on his back, displaying record-setting accuracy and dual-threat ability.

When he went down, the effect was dramatic.

"He was our leader, and he was an every-down guy and made the plays that we still wondered how he made 'em," Schmidt said. "So when he did go down, it was tough to adjust. It was tough to throw some freshmen in there who didn't have the experience and really weren't leaders of the offense yet."

Redshirt freshman Evan Watkins and true freshman Kain Colter were "thrown in the deep end, so to speak, without being taught how to swim," Fitzgerald said. The results were predictable, although Colter showed some flashes in a TicketCity Bowl loss to Texas Tech.

Colter started the first three games this year, leading Northwestern to two wins, and relieved Persa in several other contests. When Persa injured his left shoulder Saturday against Nebraska, Colter came in and guided the Wildcats to a 28-25 win. Colter, who has played receiver as well as quarterback, is averaging 136.7 yards of total offense against Big Ten opponents and has accounted for nine touchdowns.

"A lot of it might go back to that we’ve used Kain at other places on the field," Schmidt said. "We know what he can do with the ball in his hands, regardless of whether he’s behind center or split out. If Dan does go down for a little bit, we know Kain is plenty capable to come in and get the job done."

The running backs follow a similar philosophy. Schmidt and true freshmen Treyvon Green have been the only healthy backs all season, as Mike Trumpy suffered a season-ending knee injury against Illinois, while Adonis Smith has missed three games with injuries.

Northwestern has had six games where multiple players recorded 10 or more carries.

"If you're No. 1 on the depth chart or No. 4 on the depth chart, you've got to be ready to get in there when you're number's called," Schmidt said. "You've got to know what to expect, you've got to study your butt off all week and prepare like you are the starter and you're going to get 20 carries and 50 plays.

"I’m incredibly confident with whatever 11 we put on the field offensively."
Northwestern has made no secret about its intention to establish the run game this season.

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they will have to do so without their most talented running back.

Sophomore Mike Trumpy will miss the rest of the season after suffering a torn ACL in Saturday's loss to Illinois. Trumpy suffered the knee injury early in the third quarter and had to be carted off the field.

Although Jacob Schmidt and Trumpy have shared the starting job through the first five games, Trumpy has been Northwestern's most effective ball-carrier aside from quarterback Kain Colter. Trumpy leads Northwestern in yards per carry (5.2) and ranks second in both carries (35) and rushing yards (182).

The Wildcats will turn to Schmidt, sophomore Adonis Smith and freshman Treyvon Green at running back.

It will be interesting to see how Trumpy's absence affects the carries distribution, and more important, how it affects the run-pass balance.

Northwestern got some good news Monday as starting quarterback Dan Persa practiced. Coach Pat Fitzgerald expects Persa, who missed the end of the Illinois game after aggravating his Achilles tendon, to play this week against No. 12 Michigan.

Persa provides the passing threat Northwestern has lacked this season, and he fired four touchdown passes on only 14 attempts against Illinois. Expect the Wildcats to air it out more this week and utilize their weapons at receiver and tight end to test Michigan's secondary.
Northwestern has issued its official injury report for Saturday's road game against Army. Like the first two weeks, quarterback Dan Persa is listed as questionable. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall told ESPN.com earlier today that while it's possible Persa could play against the Black Knights, he's still waiting on full clearance from the medical staff.

Here's the full rundown:

OUT
  • DT Brian Arnfelt, foot
  • DT Jack DiNardo, leg
  • S Jared Carpenter, wrist
  • CB Collin Ellis, hand
  • LB Roderick Goodlow, leg
  • WR Tony Jones, leg
  • RB Adonis Smith, leg
QUESTIONABLE
  • QB Dan Persa, leg

Northwestern will need veteran Niko Mafuli and its younger defensive tackles to step up against Army's triple-option offense. Although Smith will be missed at running back, Mike Trumpy is expected to return from a concussion after missing last week's game.

Big Ten lunch links

September, 8, 2011
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Getting closer to game day ...

Big Ten mailblog

July, 19, 2011
7/19/11
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Mail time.

No mailblog Friday as I'll be off, but get those emails in for next week as we approach Big Ten media days.

Keygan from Lincoln, Neb., writes: Hey Adam. I feel like the only one who thinks this whole "pay-for-play" idea is utterly ridiculous, so it'd be nice to hear your thoughts on it. I'm a music education major AND in the marching band at Nebraska. I support the school. I spend roughly 15 hours a week in rehearsal for the upcoming games. I only get 1 credit hour. I'm just as much a student as the athletes so why shouldn't I be entitled to a stipend if they are? I understand why it's being discussed and I LOVE sports as much as the next guy, but come on, let's not cut the rest of us students short.

Adam Rittenberg: Keygan, while I respect what you do and know Huskers fans appreciate your work with the band, you don't bring in the same kind of money as football players do. Not even close. No students do. Does that entitle football players to more resources? A full-blown pay-for-play system for athletes seems very tough to regulate, but going to a cost of attendance model for scholarships makes sense. It would apply to all athletes on full scholarships. While not every FBS program could afford this, the division between the haves and the have-nots is already there in areas like facilities. I don't think certain schools going to a cost-of-attendance model changes things too much. If Big Ten schools can improve the lives of their student-athletes, especially those from low-income backgrounds, I'm for it.

What I'd ultimately like to see is more flexibility for student-athletes to get jobs and paid internships. I filled my three college summers with two paid internships -- one at ESPN.com, which helped me land my current gig -- and a job back home. I also was able to earn money during the school year. I wish student-athletes had more time to get this type of work and didn't have to be so tethered to the athletic building year-round. These types of jobs and internship opportunities also prepare student-athletes for life after sports.


Eric from Waco, Texas, writes: Adam, in your post "Recapping Big Ten position rankings" you Nebraska and Penn State both got the same average score yet Nebraska is "in that top mix" while Penn State was grouped with the wild cards. Penn State also had one more player in your "Top10/Top5" list totals. I'll always be a die hard Penn State fan but I'm not going to forecast a national championship this season. I find it interesting to see that Penn State's "numbers" match up to may analysts preseason favorite, Nebraska, yet they're not getting as much hype. If the numbers are the same, what factors in your opinion would put Nebraska over a Penn State, Ohio State, or Wisconsin?

Adam Rittenberg: Thanks for the note, Eric. You bring up a point I wanted to make about the position rankings. It's a little dangerous to look at the averages and say these two teams are definitely equal, or Team X is definitely superior or inferior to Team Y. When it comes to Nebraska and Penn State, the rankings suggest Nebraska's defense will be better than Penn State's offense or defense. Nebraska's defense very well could be the best single unit in the Big Ten this year. The Blackshirts are the biggest reason why Nebraska is considered a potential Big Ten favorite. Penn State, meanwhile, has no truly bad units, but questionable areas on both sides of the ball. I'm talking mainly about the lines. If Penn State's D-line addresses some questions, the overall defense could be very, very good. Same goes with the offensive line and the offense as a whole. But there are fewer certainties with PSU. When you put these teams next to one another entering the season, I'd give an edge to the squad (Nebraska) with a truly complete unit (the defense).


Sam from Jump Town, Wis., writes: Adam, I've noticed that many of the preseason watch lists have included james white instead of montee ball. I feel like the general consensus around campus is that Montee Ball is the man for the starting job this fall. Ball fits the Wisconsin mold moreso than White and will arguably get the majority of the touchdowns as he is going to be the goal-line back. Is there a reason White is getting more love than Ball other than the fact that he was such a freshman phenom?

Adam Rittenberg: Sam, this is a really interesting question. Montee Ball honestly looked more like Wisconsin's featured back down the stretch of the 2010 than James White did. White, meanwhile, is getting more hype because he won Big Ten Freshman of the Year and played more meaningful snaps than Ball. I agree that Ball fits the Wisconsin mold as a bigger back, and he really came on strong down the stretch as injuries cropped up for John Clay. Still, I wouldn't dismiss White as a potential featured back. Sure, he doesn't fit the traditional Wisconsin mold, but that's not a bad thing. Former running backs coach John Settle told me several times how White provides a new element to the Badgers' rushing attack. The interesting thing is both backs worked on their bodies during the offseason, as Ball slimmed down and White strengthened his lower body. They both want to be complete backs and Wisconsin should benefit from having both in the fold.


Tyler from Fort Dodge, Iowa, writes: First off love the blog. This is the only place that suffices during the off season. I have the utmost faith in James Vandenberg and believe he will have 2 great years wearing a Hawkeye uniform. But with Jack Rudock on his way to town is there any way he will compete for the starting job in 2012? Could the whole Christensen/Stanzi scenerio come into play if Vandenberg isn't up to snuff?

Adam Rittenberg: Tyler, it would take a pretty disappointing performance from Vandenberg and a lack of development from John Wienke and A.J. Derby for Jake Rudock to be in the mix for a starting job in 2012. Iowa coaches and players are extremely confident in Vandenberg, who showed a lot in 2009 after being placed in an extremely difficult situation. Their assessment would have to be pretty far off for a Stanzi/Christensen redux to occur. That said, Rudock very well could be Iowa's quarterback of the future. And by future, I'm thinking 2013 and beyond.


Mike C. from St. Paul, Minn., writes: Love the blog, BUT someone has to go to bat for the gophers. As a self-loathing gopher fan with an eternal inferiority complex... I sat by as the gopher position rankings revealed themselves. I can sit idle no more! A collective 10.3?! Lower than Indiana?! (No offense Indiana). This ranking is less logical than Ben Bernanke Congressional testimony. This atrocity is highlighted by an 11th place WR/TE finish. You would think that Biletnikoff and Mackey award candidates (Mcknight, Lair) would allow us lowly gophers to crack the top 10! I would go into detailed arguments on how fallacious some of your other position rankings, but the truth is, there is a line of reasoning used in calculating these rankings that I, and all us gopher (and hoosier) fans must swallow: you tailor you ratings to where you think the teams will finish and NOT the other way around. An honest assessment of talent, and removing the circular reasoning (assuming what you're proving to be true) that comes with best teams (not that they don't deserve it) would leave the position rankings little different. Now, that does not mean I disagree with your team rankings, but come on Adam, a few good position rankings are all we gopher fans have these days. Are you going to take that from us?

Adam Rittenberg: Mike, love your passion, your humor and some of your points. But here's what concerns me about fans' assessments of our position rankings. Everyone thinks their team should be higher, which is fine. But very few folks look at the whole picture and explain to me why other teams should be below their team. Yes, some position rankings are based on track record, but I really try to look at all the personnel groupings from every team and evaluate them independently.

OK, let's look at receivers/tight ends. This is an unusual year where the Big Ten boasts terrific depth at these positions. Normally, a Minnesota crew boasting Da'Jon McKnight and Eric Lair would rank higher. But there's very little depth other than those two, and while in hindsight I should have ranked Lair higher individually, I see quite a few teams with more proven options than the Gophers, Indiana being one of them.

From a defensive standpoint, Minnesota has a ton of question marks. Most Gophers fans would admit this. The D-line was terrible in 2010. Could it be better this season? Sure, but we've got to see it on the field. Other than Troy Stoudermire and Kim Royston, who comes off a very serious injury, the secondary is a big mystery. The linebackers, meanwhile, could be very good. It wouldn't surprise me if they rise up the rankings.

Again, my point isn't to rip on Minnesota or its players, several of whom I really like. But tell me why other teams should be below your team, not always why your team should be higher.


(Read full post)

Beginning today, we're going to start ranking each position group in the Big Ten. These rankings will reflect the overall strength at each position, so depth matters as well as individual star power. Following each group ranking, we'll also give out our list of the top individual players at that position.

Let's start out with a look at the running back groups across the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball and James White
AP Photo/Morry GashMontee Ball and James White did a lot of celebrating last season, as the duo combined for 32 TDs.
1. Wisconsin: No surprise at the top. Even with John Clay gone and Zach Brown transferring, the Badgers are loaded at tailback. They've still got junior Montee Ball, who finished four yards shy of 1,000 last season with 18 touchdowns, along with reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year James White, who ran for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns. Throw in senior fullback Bradie Ewing and redshirt freshman Jeff Lewis, and the Badgers should be powerful on the ground yet again in 2011.

2. Michigan State: Other than Wisconsin, the Spartans have the best collection of experience and talent in the backfield. First-team All-Big Ten performer Edwin Baker ran for 1,201 yards and 13 scores last year. Le'Veon Bell, a 237-pound bruiser, complemented him as a true freshman with 605 yards and eight scores. Larry Caper is a capable veteran, and fifth-year senior Todd Anderson starts at fullback. The Spartans are deep and versatile in their rushing attack.

3. Ohio State: The Buckeyes might have earned a higher ranking if Dan Herron were eligible to play a full season. But with Herron (1,155 yards and 16 scores in '10) suspended for the first five games, Ohio State will need some youngsters to fill his shoes. The good news is that there are plenty of talented candidates. Jaamal Berry is the leading returning rusher outside of Herron, and he averaged 8.3 yards per carry in a limited role last season. Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde will also battle for more playing time, while redshirt freshman Rod Smith could emerge as the No. 1 tailback after an impressive offseason. Zach Boren is back at fullback. Things may be in flux in Columbus, but you can almost always count on a good running game from the Buckeyes.

[+] EnlargeNebraska's Rex Burkhead
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesJunior Rex Burkhead averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season and scored seven TDs.
4. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers led the Big 12 in rushing last season with 247.6 yards per game on the ground, good for ninth in the FBS. Leading rusher Roy Helu Jr. is gone, but junior Rex Burkhead returns after a 951-yard campaign. He will occasionally line up at receiver or take snaps in the Wildcat. The Cornhuskers lack experience behind him but are expecting big contributions from incoming freshmen Aaron Green and Amer Abdullah. ESPN Recruiting ranked Green as the No. 11 player overall in the Class of 2011.

5. Penn State: Yes, the school's all-time leading rusher has moved on, as Evan Royster graduated. But the Nittany Lions still feel confident about their running game, which should be led by sophomore Silas Redd. He ran for 461 yards and 5.7 yards per carry as a true freshman, showing a physical style. Senior Stephfon Green will be asked to take on a larger role, and Brandon Beachum is back after missing last season with a knee injury. Joe Suhey and Michael Zordich are productive players at the fullback spot.

6. Purdue: The Boilermakers' stock in this chart could go up if Ralph Bolden successfully returns from injury. So far, so good for Bolden, who was a second-team All-Big Ten performer in 2009. Rob Henry led the team in rushing last year with 547 yards, but fullback Dan Dierking graduated. Junior college transfer Akeem Shavers got a lot of carries this spring and should contribute, and Reggie Pegram also is in the mix.

7. Iowa: Running back depth is a serious issue for Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes. Adam Robinson, who would have been the leading returning running back in the Big Ten in terms of yards per game, was dismissed from the team following a December arrest. Marcus Coker could emerge as a superstar, however, after starting four of Iowa's final five games as a true freshman. He was the offensive MVP of the Insight Bowl with 219 rushing yards on 33 carries and has drawn comparisons to former Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene. There's virtually no proven experience behind him, though, and three-year starting fullback Brett Morse is no longer around.

8. Michigan: If only we could count Denard Robinson as a running back. Brady Hoke plans to cut down on Shoelace's carries, which means the Wolverines' tailbacks will get more of a chance to shine. The question is who will step up. Senior Michael Shaw and junior Vincent Smith split time as starters last season, while Stephen Hopkins and Michael Cox are in the mix for more carries. Can celebrated recruit Justice Hayes contribute right away?

9. Illinois: Mikel Leshoure's dash to the NFL left the Illini with uncertainty at running back. Senior Jason Ford, the most likely successor, sat out much of spring ball with a hurt knee, while Troy Pollard's promising spring was cut short by a concussion. Incoming freshman Donovonn Young will get a look this fall.

10. Northwestern: Like Nebraska and Michigan, Northwestern relied on its quarterback -- in this case Dan Persa-- for a heavy chunk of the rushing yards. Mike Trumpy came on late in the year as a freshman and solidified his starting spot with a strong spring. Sophomore Adonis Smith, senior Jacob Schmidt and junior Tyris Jones will fight for carries behind him.

11. Minnesota: There was healthy competition at tailback this spring with a mixture of veterans and fresh faces. DeLeon Eskridge led the team last year with 698 rushing yards, while Duane Bennett added 529. They're being pushed by redshirt freshmen Donnell Kirkwood and Lamonte Edwards. New coach Jerry Kill will look to improve on the Gophers' paltry 3.6 yards per carry average last season. This is a group that could make a major move up the rankings.

12. Indiana: New Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson has a challenge in figuring out this group. Three of the top candidates for the starting tailback job, Darius Willis, Antonio Banks and Xavier Whitaker, all suffered season-ending knee injuries in 2010 and missed spring practice. IU's leading rusher last season finished with just 352 yards. Nick Turner and Matt Perez got the bulk of the reps in the spring. Perhaps Wilson's high-tempo offense will improve the stats for Indiana ball carriers.
Northwestern has issued its post-spring depth chart after wrapping up its practice session Saturday with the spring exhibition.

A few notes and observations:
  • Sophomore Mike Trumpy is listed as the starting running back, a position where Northwestern needs much more production in 2011. Coordinator Mick McCall wanted a No. 1 back to emerge this spring, and Trumpy really seems like the best option. He played better as the 2010 season went along before fracturing his wrist against Illinois. Senior Jacob Schmidt and sophomore Adonis Smith are listed as co-backups. I'm a little surprised not to see Tyris Jones' name on the two-deep.
  • Although the reserve quarterbacks took all the reps this spring, there's still no answer about who will back up Dan Persa this fall. Kain Colter, Trevor Siemian and Evan Watkins all are listed as co-backups. Colter would be my choice, but he still has to prove more to the staff.
  • Receivers Charles Brown and Mike Jensen both helped their cause this spring. Brown is listed as a starter with Jensen as his backup. Sophomore Rashad Lawrence, the most impressive of the three true freshmen wideouts who played in 2010, also is listed as a starter.
  • Guard Doug Bartels, who missed spring ball following shoulder surgery, will compete with Neal Deiters for a starting job this summer. Bartels started every game in 2009 and the first three last fall.
  • Defensive linemen Tyler Scott and Niko Mafuli both drew praise from the coaches this spring, and both players now are listed as co-starters at their respective positions. Scott will compete with returning starter Kevin Watt, while Mafuli and Brian Arnfelt will compete to fill a vacancy.
  • As expected, Jervain Matthews is listed as a starting cornerback, a job he secured this spring. Redshirt freshman Ibraheim Campbell moved into a backup role after impressing the staff in practice.
  • The competition at kicker will continue into the fall -- and possibly all the way until game week -- as Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty are listed as co-starters.

Northwestern also announced its Sept. 17 game at Army will kick off at 3:30 p.m. ET and be televised by CBS Sports Network.
Since many of you have asked, I won't be attending any spring games this weekend (or next, for that matter). It's a little tough to explain to non-media folks, but I get a lot more out of visiting campuses midweek than for spring games, when things are chaotic. The good news: I'll recap every spring game Monday.

Now it's time to preview the six Big Ten spring games on tap Saturday (in reverse alphabetical order) ...

PENN STATE

The vitals: Blue-White Game presented by AAA kicks off at 2 p.m. ET Saturday at Beaver Stadium; admission and parking are free

More details: Penn State has a pregame autograph session and a ton of events planned for the weekend. All the information can be found here.

Three things to watch

1. The quarterbacks: The race for the starting job has been the top story at Penn State this spring, and all four candidates will be on the field Saturday. Most eyes will be on sophomore Rob Bolden and junior Matt McGloin, who split the starts in 2010 and have paced one another throughout the spring. Both players have impressed the coaches, who likely won't name a starter until the summer. Saturday marks the final chance for Bolden and McGloin to showcase their abilities for the coaches and fans before spring ball concludes.

2. Line play: Penn State has to upgrade both lines if it wants to contend in the Leaders division this season. The Lions have very little depth at defensive end because of injuries, but fans should keep an eye on defensive tackles Devon Still, Jordan Hill and Brandon Ware, all of whom have drawn praise from the coaches this spring. Penn State needs a big year from its interior linemen. The offensive line boasts four seniors and should be solid at the tackle spots, but it'll be interesting to see how the guards and centers perform as Penn State must replace standout Stefen Wisniewski.

3. Running backs: Injuries will keep several Penn State playmakers on the sideline Saturday, but fans should get a clear read on the running backs. There's a lot of hype for Silas Redd after a solid freshman season, but he's being pushed by Stephfon Green and Brandon Beachum, who has stood out this spring after missing all of last season with a torn ACL. Green and Redd both have breakaway ability, while Beachum could be the power back Penn State has missed in recent years.

NORTHWESTERN

The vitals: The spring football "exhibition," which will be more of a situational scrimmage, kicks off at noon CT (1 p.m. ET) at Ryan Field; admission and parking are free but fans are encouraged to bring nonperishable canned-food items for a food drive.

More details: Northwestern is holding a youth football clinic and several other events. All the info can be found here.

Three things to watch

1. The race for backup QB: All-Big Ten selection Dan Persa is on track to return by late May or early June, but he won't be taking any snaps Saturday. Northwestern will divide the reps evenly between three signal-callers -- sophomore Kain Colter, junior Evan Watkins and redshirt freshman Trevor Siemian -- vying to play behind Persa this season. Colter is the most intriguing candidate after a breakout performance against Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl, but all three players have endured some ups and downs this spring.

2. New faces on defense: The coaches feel they've upgraded the athleticism on defense with recent recruiting, especially at spots like linebacker and defensive back. Northwestern's defense looked slow and overmatched at times last season, and quite a few jobs are open this spring. Keep an eye on players such as linebackers David Nwabuisi and Damian Proby and redshirt freshman safety Ibraheim Campbell, a player coach Pat Fitzgerald has praised multiple times this spring.

3. The running backs: Persa carried the run game in 2010 but admits he took too many shots and will try to limit the damage this fall. He could use more help from a run game that has suffered since Tyrell Sutton graduated. Mike Trumpy provided a spark late last year and has had a good spring, and Adonis Smith has a year under his belt. Keep an eye on Tyris Jones, a physical runner who has stepped up this spring as a running back/H-back.

(Read full post)

The Northwestern Wildcats hit the practice field today for the first of 15 spring practices.

Here's a quick snapshot of what to expect in Evanston:

The big story: Repairing the defense. Northwestern's defense fell apart in the final three games of last season, surrendering 48, 70 and 45 points, respectively, in losses to Illinois, Wisconsin, and Texas Tech in the Dallas Football Classic. Injuries certainly played a role, but the defense seemed to lose its edge after starting quarterback Dan Persa suffered a season-ending Achilles' injury. Coach Pat Fitzgerald has talked about restoring an attitude, and as a result, he's opening competition for most starting jobs this spring. It'll be interesting to see how the defense looks after spring ball.

Position in the spotlight: Running back. Mike Trumpy and Adonis Smith showed flashes of promise in 2010, and there's hope that Northwestern's long-suffering rushing attack could be on the rise. Trumpy, who missed the final two games with a broken wrist, could miss the first few days of spring ball, but it's important for he and Smith to continue making strides. Northwestern can't be so reliant on Persa to do it all in 2011.

Coaching changes: Receivers coach Dennis Springer is the only new assistant on Fitzgerald's staff, as he replaces Kevin Johns. Springer inherits arguably the deepest position group on the squad, and his experience with special teams could help Northwestern in the kicking game. Although the Wildcats must identify a new kicker this spring, they're fine at punter and could be very good on returns with Venric Mark.

Keep an eye on: Outside linebacker Roderick Goodlow. He missed all of last season following knee surgery, but should be in the mix for one of several starting linebacker spots this spring. One of three true freshmen to see the field in 2009, Goodlow could be a breakout player if he stays healthy.

Spring game: April 16
Pat Fitzgerald is ready for spring ball, for a fresh start to a new season, for a chance to look ahead.

But when Northwestern hits the practice field Monday for the first of 15 spring workouts, Fitzgerald might remind the players about their most recent performances. Needless to say, no one was pleased with the way the Wildcats wrapped up the 2010 season.

"The way we finished was completely and totally unacceptable, and that’s on all of us," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com on Monday. "If we’re going to fix it, we have to be the catalysts to do that."

Northwestern dropped its final three games by a combined score of 163-88. Quarterback Dan Persa missed the closing stretch after rupturing his Achilles' tendon in a Nov. 13 win against Iowa. Persa's injury seemed to rattle the Wildcats, who also were banged up on defense.

Was there an explanation for the late collapse?

"Nothing other than excuses," Fitzgerald said. "We’ve got to play better, we’ve got to coach better, we’ve got to play with a better attitude. We play team football here and we didn’t do a very good job of that. When we turned it over, we didn’t get off the field. When we did go down and score, we didn’t get a big stop we needed. And when we got a big stop, maybe we went three-and-out.

"We've got to pick each other up."

You always hear about competition in spring ball, but Northwestern's poor finish underscores the need to open up pretty much every job.

Fitzgerald notes the Wildcats' two-deep is loaded with players who have logged ample time in games. Several projected starters will miss part of all of spring ball -- Persa, linebacker Bryce McNaul, defensive tackle Jack DiNardo, guard Doug Bartels -- so there's opportunities everywhere.

A few positions to watch:
  • Defensive back: Northwestern needs a second starter to join Jordan Mabin, not to mention some safety help. Jeravin Matthews, a special teams standout who has struggled to find a permanent position, will compete for time at cornerback. "He’s always been spectacular in the kicking game for us, and he sees an opportunity," Fitzgerald said.
  • Running back: Mike Trumpy is expected to participate in all of spring ball after missing the final two games of last season with a fractured wrist. He'll wear a cast on the wrist for the spring and compete alongside rising sophomore Adonis Smith.
  • Linebacker: The Wildcats must replace two starters and the third, McNaul, will miss the spring following offseason surgery. Hopes are high for Roderick Goodlow, who missed all of last season with a knee injury but has been going through winter workouts. Goodlow was one of just three true freshmen to see the field in 2009. "It’s a heck of a free-agent pickup," Fitzgerald said.
  • Backup quarterback: With Persa limited, the coaching staff will turn its attention to Evan Watkins, Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian as they compete for the backup job this spring. Watkins boasts the most experience but Colter provided a spark in the bowl game.

Northwestern wraps up spring ball April 16 with its spring game.
National Signing Day is just about a week away, so let's take a look at the recruiting needs for each Big Ten team.

In compiling these lists, I tried to look at positions that have depth issues for 2011 and/or 2012.

Let's start off with the Legends division.

IOWA

Running back: Marcus Coker's breakout performance in the Insight Bowl got Iowa fans excited for the future, but there's still a significant depth issue here. If Adam Robinson can't get reinstated, the Hawkeyes will be looking for No. 2 and No. 3 options behind Coker. As we've seen the past two seasons, freshmen backs will see the field at Iowa.

Linebacker: Iowa felt the losses of Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds this season, and it must continue to rebuild the depth at the three linebacker spots. Multiyear starter Jeremiha Hunter departs along with players like Jeff Tarpinian and Troy Johnson. Iowa needs to build around rising star James Morris.

Wide receiver/tight end: Iowa loses Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Allen Reisner and Colin Sandeman this year. Also, receiver Marvin McNutt and tight end Brad Herman depart after the 2011 season. Although the Hawkeyes boast young talent at both positions, they need to build depth with this class.

MICHIGAN

Secondary: The Wolverines couldn't find many answers here in 2010, and though the return of players like cornerbacks Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd will help, there are opportunities for freshmen to make an immediate impact. Michigan simply needs more options at both secondary spots in 2011.

Defensive line: It's crucial for coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to begin building depth up front. Future NFL player Mike Martin departs after 2011 along with Ryan Van Bergen, so Michigan needs to solidify both line positions.

Kicker: Field goals were an adventure in 2010, and Michigan simply can't have so much uncertainty at kicker going forward. The Wolverines need a reliable leg here ASAP.

MICHIGAN STATE

Linebacker: I like some of the young linebackers the Spartans bring back in 2011, but you can't overlook the losses of multiyear starters Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, not to mention reserve Jon Misch. Michigan State should have a decent group of first-string 'backers, but wants to build depth in the defensive midsection.

Offensive line: Not only do the Spartans lose three starters from the 2010 line, but they're still not where they need to be depth-wise up front to become a consistent top-tier Big Ten program. Michigan State wants to become like Iowa and Wisconsin. The big step is to keep fortifying both lines, especially on the offensive side.

MINNESOTA

Pass rusher: Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten in sacks last season (9) and hasn't had an intimidating pass rusher since Willie VanDeSteeg in 2008. The recent departure of defensive tackle Jewhan Edwards, who led the team in both sacks and tackles for loss in 2009, underscores this need.

Offensive line: The Gophers lose three starters up front, and while they boast some promising young linemen like tackle Ed Olson, the depth just isn't there yet. Minnesota's best teams had powerful offensive lines, and new coach Jerry Kill must continue to create competition up front.

NEBRASKA

Running back: The Huskers lose standout Roy Helu Jr., and while Rex Burkhead quickly will become one of my favorite Big Ten players, he might not be an every-down back for Nebraska going forward. You always want options in the backfield, and Nebraska must continue to address its run game with the 2011 class.

Wide receiver: Nebraska loses Niles Paul and wants to identify playmakers to surround Taylor Martinez or whomever starts at quarterback. Brandon Kinnie departs after the 2011 season, and while Burkhead helps in the receiving department, Nebraska needs others to emerge.

NORTHWESTERN

Running back: Although Mike Trumpy and Adonis Smith emerged as possible answers late in the 2010 season, Northwestern needs to create real competition here. The Wildcats have lacked a dominant back during the Pat Fitzgerald era and need a dangerous rushing option to complement Dan Persa.

Defensive line: The Wildcats lose only one starter (Corbin Bryant) from the 2010 squad, but four more rotation players (Vince Browne, Jack DiNardo, Kevin Watt and Niko Mafuli) depart after 2011. Fortifying the pass rush is a major priority going forward.

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